On the silliness of “best practice” – or why you shouldn’t (just) copy successful organisations

The very idea of “best practice” is silly. In any meaningful complex activity the idea of simply copying what someone else did is destined to fail because it doesn’t seek to understand the reasons why that best practice worked for them and what are the differences between “them” and “us”.

This post over at 37 Signals expounds a bit more on this and references an article titled Why your startup shouldn’t copy 37signals or Fog Creek. The article gives one of the explanations of why best practices are silly.

Dave Snowden has an article called Managing for Serendipity: why we should lay off “best practice” in Knowledge Management that takes the discussion even further. Some of the reasons he gives include:

  • Human beings naturally learn more effectively from failure than success.
  • There is only a very limited set of circumstances in which you are able to identify some “best way” of doing something (see wicked problems).
  • It’s very unlikely that we can codify this “best way” in a way that makes it possible for others to fully understand and adopt the practice.
  • People are unlikely to actually follow the best practice.

My favourite one, from a number of sources, is that “best” practice, “good” practice and even “bad” bad practice from somewhere else tends to be adopted because it is easier than attempting to really understand the local context and draw on expertise and knowledge to develop solutions appropriate to that context.

Doing that is hard. Much easier to see what “important organisation X” has done and copy them. This is where fads come from.

This is a small part of the argument made in the book Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail by Robert Birnbaum that I’m currently reading. More on this soon.

2 thoughts on “On the silliness of “best practice” – or why you shouldn’t (just) copy successful organisations

  1. Pingback: Down with the cookie-cutter LMS: the Edupunk ideology and why integrated systems might go away « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  2. Pingback: Why minimium standards (probably) won’t work and will probably become maximum standards « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

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